A rose by any other name?
Titles are very much on my mind at present as I mull over the options for my recently completed novel. Of course whatever my agent and I settle on, it won’t necessarily be the title the book ends up with, but still . . . you want something that’ll get you off to a good start and attract the eye of an editor. And this is by no means easy. A good title should pique the reader’s curiosity, it should tell the reader something about the book, but it shouldn’t tell them too much. Some of best titles, I think, are allusive rather than descriptive, they come at the novel from a slant. SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, MISS SMILLA’S FEELING FOR SNOW are recent titles that I find memorable and evocative. The title should fit the novel so well that you can’t imagine it with any other name. LORD OF THE FLIES. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. GONE WITH THE WIND. CATCH TWENTY-TWO. Great titles, all of them, It comes as something of a surprise to discover that Margeret’s Mitchell’s original title for GONE WITH THE WIND was TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY: nothing like as good. And CATCH TWENTY-TWO wasn’t Joseph Heller’s first idea either.
Im my experience a title is either obvious from the start or it gives you endless trouble. One way round this is to begin with the title. That’s more or less what I did with my short story, ‘Don’t You Hate Having Two Heads?’ I happened to see this, the title of a surrealist painting, in an article in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, and it stuck in my memory. And when sometime later on holiday in Venice I visited the Guggenheim museum and saw Max Ernst’s sinister painting, THE ROBING OF THE BRIDE, in which the bride does indeed have two heads, well, the story almost wrote itself. My friend the crime writer Kate Ellis who has some great titles, often uses them as a jumping off point: that’s what she did with her latest book, THE FLESH TAILOR, an archaic name for a surgeon. Similarly with my novel FOOTFALL I had the title in mind some time before the novel began to form round it.
In the end there is something mysterious about a good title. It’s not necessarily something you can decide on just by thinking about it. Like an idea for a novel, it can arrive out of the blue and you know it when you see it.